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  • Food as Fuel and an Ethics of Appearancesi
  • Davide Panagia (bio)

In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) Thomas Malthus provides what have become some of the more enduring and defining trajectories that inform political economic reflections on food and politics. Beyond the familiar alarm that the size of the population tends towards a geometric increase whereas food can merely increase arithmetically, Malthus also argues that a society’s perfectibility (something about which he is most skeptical) cannot be divorced from its health, and that the health of the body-politic is indissolubly bound to the forces of subsistence, sexual reproduction, and industrious activity. All three of these factors create an energetic amalgam that drives Malthus’s fervent belief that “evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it.”ii

In many ways the papers by Chad Lavin, Melissa Orlie, and Kennan Ferguson engage some of Malthus’s key themes by reflecting on the objecthood of food in order to contend with some of the most urgent political concerns of our time.

Chad Lavin’s demystification of the locavore phantasmagoria directs our attentions to how food “reveals our bodies as complex assemblages inexorably implicated in other assemblages” (industrial, economic, cultural). His discussion of the rise of organic foods in the American post World War II era links the ethos of organics to a “deliverance from toxicity” and from the ailments of industrial society. As many histories of counter-cultural movements indicate, the post-war era in America is as marked by the cooption of counter-culture as it is by the promise of resistance to the forces and agents of cultural commodification.iii This is why the turn towards localism, according to Lavin, is not actually a response to the industrialization of organics. It is, rather, rooted in a concern over calorie proportions: that is, the locavore critique of organics asks what is the right proportion of fossil fuel to food ratio? Here, as Lavin explains, the “attention to a caloric general equivalent opens into a strictly economic and properly thermodynamic understanding of food in which each object and link in the food chain is but a bearer of energy to be transferred to another through metabolism.”

Lavin does not find salvation in any of these approaches because the real evil remains consumerism and the neo-liberalisation of every aspect of our public and private lives. “By establishing the market as the institution through which democratic citizenship can be effected,” he concludes in his analysis of locavores, “[Michael Pollan’s] argument participates in a neoliberal vogue for subordinating political struggle to market exchange. So while consuming local food does produce a market in sustainable agriculture, it also produces the market as the solution to political problems.” (emphasis in original) To be sure, there is some hope (and Lavin admits to overstating the case): rather than directing our industrious energies to co-opted consumerist projects of resistance like localism and organicism, we should instead exert ourselves to avoid them by turning to such “self-consciously political” practices as the ones recommended by Julie Guthman, such as investing in a farm’s equity so that eaters are compelled “to take on the responsibilities and risks required of community ownership.” In this manner Lavin imagines that becoming an owner-in-common with others will help resolve the perils of commodity culture.iv In short, Lavin’s critique of the culture of food commodification wants to exert our collective energies to good use in order to produce an activity of responsible ownership that is not consumptive in its orientation towards comestibles.

Whereas Lavin is guarded against the physics of the food-industrial complex, Melissa Orlie’s essay is concerned with the metaphysics of food politics. More to the point, she is concerned that the critique of essentialism in the humanities has led to a disregard of the multiplicity of nature and our complex imbrication in it. As she observes, “the rejection of substantive metaphysical assumptions by contemporary humanist theorists has resulted in the refusal of the actuality of nature and its realities, a refusal...

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